Les left the Bay City Rollers in 1978, when the band was already on the skids. But now he's promoting a new album, or rather, a new album of old songs - the Bay City Rollers Greatest Hits. There's a Seventies revival, apparently, and suddenly the Bay City Rollers are so hideously dated that they're almost hip. The record company is also releasing a megamix of "Bye Bye Baby" (number one in March 1975), a jingly-jangly pop song that revealed the Rollers in all their tinny glory. (And yes, Les sang on all those mindlessly catchy hit singles, despite the fact that session musicians played the group's instruments in the studio more often than not.)
These days Les makes a living by going out on the road and singing his old hits, though he has a new band to back him because he doesn't talk to the rest of the Rollers. He sued them, and they sued him, and they've all sued the men in suits who were supposed to look after their money.
He won't earn anything from this new album; he didn't write the songs in the first place, and any royalties that might be due to him will probably disappear into another Byzantine court case. But still, he is posing on the lawn, larking around for an ancient Fleet Street photographer.
"I have to say, Les is being awfully game about all of this," says the record company press officer. Then the photo session is over and Les helps the photographer back down the path. He waves goodbye and says to me: "People don't help each other enough these days."
We go upstairs to the press office to do the interview. Les has a cup of tea and smokes a lot. He's got thick black hair, just like in the old days, but his face isn't quite as cute as it used to be, and he's not wearing platform boots and calf-length tartan-trimmed trousers any more. He's got on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt and a slightly flamboyant black jacket, but nothing too exceptional. He lives in Hackney now, he tells me, with his Japanese wife and 10-year-old son. He and his wife have been together 17 years.
He says he's not bitter about the past. "I look back at it with fond memories. It was a brilliant time. I was a young guy and I had a lot of confidence." He joined the Rollers when he was 17, at the end of 1973. "Their manager, Tam Paton, had seen me playing with my little group in Edinburgh [his home town], and he asked me if I wanted to join the Rollers. It was £10 a week to join the Rollers and minus £20 a week to stay with my group, so I needed to take it."
Les, who was the youngest of four brothers, was already desperate to be famous. "I went to one of David Bowie's concerts, and everyone was going apeshit, and I was looking at him and thinking, `This must be the best job in the world! That would be everyone's dream!' I thought, `I've just got to devote myself to getting in that situation'."
It didn't take long: the Bay City Rollers were provoking mass hysteria less than six months after he joined. His mum had knitted Les a jumper to wear on the front cover of his first record, and his dad, who was a tailor, had knocked up a stage outfit, and then suddenly their little lad was on Top of the Pops. "It seemed to happen awfully quick," he says. "I'm not sure what it did to me. People that knew me from before reckon that I did change a bit, that the fame went to my head a wee bit. I reckon that my feet have always been on the ground. But if someone says to you, what's it like? And you say, `We flew first-class to America, we stayed in the best hotels, we ate the best food, caviare and smoked salmon', they think, `What a big-headed bastard'."
The only way he did change, he says, was that he lost his trust in people, when his relationship with the rest of the Bay City Rollers turned sour. "In about 1977, we were on a tour of Japan and I went out to this electronic shop, and I bought some bugs and I bugged everybody in the group. And I listened to what they were saying about me."
Les says that the other Rollers ganged up on him, and told their manager, Tam Paton, that he was breaking the rules: which were, no girlfriends, no drugs and so on. Tam Paton made the rules, and laid down the law with a rod of iron. (He later went to prison on charges of gross indecency.) Anyway, Les decided he'd had enough of being ordered around by Tam and launched himself into a solo career. And then everything went even more horribly wrong. For a start, he had no money. "I'd never worried about the mortgage when I was in the Rollers. I'd just say `I want that house'. Then I'd move in. It was all taken care of. And it also got taken care of when I left the band, because the mortgage stopped being paid and the house was repossessed."
The next blow, says Les, was when he discovered that he couldn't work anywhere apart from Japan, because the record company wouldn't free him from his contract for three years. "I made four solo albums in Japan. I called the band Les McKeown's Ego Trip. The first album was called All Washed Up. On the cover there's me coming out of the sea in this spaceship with 1 XBCR on it. I had a determined look on my face and I was dragging a broken guitar behind me. It was dead symbolic."
Finally he was free to work elsewhere, and full of ideas about how to reinvent himself: futuristic bodysuits for example, inspired by his hero David Bowie. But by that time nobody seemed to be interested. "People only expect you to be what you once were - like you're a statue or something - you can only be that one thing. That's what's most frustrating, if you've got any creativity at all." After getting nowhere with the bodysuits, Les tried something else; he'd started going out to Saturday night raves, and was inspired to form a techno band, which he called LRM (for Lesley Richard McKeown). "We tried to get somewhere with it, but it was closed doors again."
What really hurts, he says, is that "there are a lot of people who are in business now because of the money they made from the Bay City Rollers. It wouldn't be so bad if some of those people turned round now and said,`We did all right by you, Les. Do you need any help?' But they don't do that. They just ignore the fact that you exist and that you had anything to do with their wealth. Inside they know they thieved their wealth. I'm quite happy that they've got to live with that. I don't care that they live in nice houses up in Hampstead. They know where they got their money, and it cannot sit well with them. It's like somebody who murders someone - those things always eat at you, and always come back to haunt you. They're welcome to their nightmare."
Fortunately, he's no longer completely broke: for the past couple of years he has been able to earn quite a lot of money with Les McKeown's Seventies Bay City Rollers (the rest of the Rollers forced him to add the prefix). "I can earn five grand a gig in Germany, five grand plus in America, and in Japan something like 12 grand a gig."
I ask him if he's putting money aside this time. "I've never been any good with money," he says. "I made a video for my rave band - we did a rave version of `Bye Bye Baby'. That eats up a lot of money. It soon goes."
He's eager to play me a demo tape of one of his new songs, which turns out to be a middle-of-the-road ballad. It's about love, but not teenage love. "I sing about older things now," he says. "I enjoy that - and I'm sure other people would if they could get a chance to listen to it, but I just don't get that opportunity."
While we listen to his song, he drums along with his fingers and plays air guitar during the solos. When it ends, he turns to me and says, wistfully: "I wrote that song. It could be a grown-up Rollers song, if I could just get a break." He is silent, for the first time in the interview. Then he lights another cigarette and pulls himself together. "It's okay. One day it will happen, as long as I don't rest too much on my past. I've just got to keep pushing forward."Reuse content